Saffron must be one of the more intriguing spices, and not only because it costs more than gold - it's like squid ink, a flavour and aroma that's as close to indescribable as you can get. The colour, of course, is intense and what I really love is that when you cook with it, your kitchen is filled with sunshine - sounds a bit wet, I know, but it's true.
It's great in rice and rice/lentil dishes, fish dishes, paella, couscous and tagines.
I've been spoilt with access to saffron, as a friend has been living in Qatar for several years and knows he could bring no better gift. I did try growing some autumn crocus bulbs myself, and the first year I collected the stamens from about 30 flowers, carefully dried them and then measured the yield, only to find I had less than a teaspoonful. Hmmmm. The next year, the crocuses came up but didn't flower at all. . .it seems that the North Island is too warm for them, or at least doesn't have a cold enough winter; it's quite clear by now that I'm not going to have anywhere near the success that Central Otago has with growing this glorious spice.
Almost any fish can be used, but it is preferable to use a firm fleshed variety. If I have time I make my own fish stock - otherwise I use a tetra pack of supermarket stock, or dashi. Dashi is made from dried bonito flakes and is a cheap alternative to the liquid stocks; it is also an excellent, quality instant stock.
Saffron is the must- have ingredient in this soup, and is not negotiable as far as I'm concerned–even a small pinch of this gorgeous spice will give any dish that distinctive sun colour, and elevate the flavour from the passable to the sublime.
Sumac as a garnish for the chowder is optional, but this is an interesting spice that has a pleasantly tart, salty, lemon flavour and is typically used in Middle Eastern cuisines such as in Turkey, Syria and Iran. It’s often used as a seasoning on the table, as we would ordinary salt, but it is also used in cooking and in salads. It’s especially good with any fish or chicken dishes, but delicious too with beef or lamb and in salads. It is made from dried and ground sumac berries and is a deep red/brown colour.
3 Tbsp oil
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
1 large stick celery, diced
1 yellow or red capsicum, seeded and diced
large pinch (about ¾ tsp, loose packed) saffron threads, crushed
500g waxy potato (unpeeled weight)
2 Tbsp flour
2 ½ cups of unsalted fish stock or 2 ½ cups water and 3 tsp dashi
1 cup coconut cream - whole or lite
400-500g fresh fish fillet
1 ½ tsp salt or to taste
freshly ground black pepper
finely chopped fresh coriander for garnish
2 tsp sumac powder for garnish
Slice the fish fillet into large dice.
Peel and cut the potato into small dice, about the size of your small fingernail.
Saute the garlic, onion, celery and capsicum over a low heat with the crushed saffron threads until the onion softens. Stir in the prepared potato and sprinkle the flour over, stirring, and cook for two or three minutes.
Stir in the fish stock.
Simmer, covered, until the potato is cooked, about 15 minutes.
Stir in the coconut cream, the salt and the pepper. When almost at simmer point, stir in the prepared fish fillets and allow the soup to come back to a simmer point.
Ladle into heated soup bowls. Garnish with coriander and the sumac and serve.
Hot crusty ciabatta rolls are a perfect accompaniment.